They say it’s a waste to live in the past, clinging to people you once knew and dreams you’ve outgrown. To live in the moment, and make plans for your future, are the cornerstones of responsibility, and you can never truly grow until you embrace them. But what if the past IS your only hope for a future? What if the only person who ever loved you was a brief acquaintance from your childhood? What if the promise to reunite as adults, bound by a common goal that will ensure their love will one day last forever? It’s easy to find the idea of someone devoting their adult lives to such a fleeting moment of happiness laughable, at least until you meet Keitaro Urashima, a 20 year old loser with a heart of gold and a body that would put a crash test dummy out of work. As a child, he made a promise to a mysterious young girl with whom he’d shared an unexpected connection. Upon realizing that they’d probably never see each other again, they vowed to one day get into the prestigious Tokyo University, a college that they heard has the power to keep loving young couples together forever. That actually sounds kind of romantic, right?
Well, it loses some of it’s luster when Keitaro, as an adult, has decided to work around his pesky undatability by holding onto this 14 year old promise well into his early twenties, optimistically believing that the love of his life is waiting just beyond the entrance exams of Tokyo University… Exams he has no hope of passing. Yeah, his ambition would probably be an admirable trait if it didn’t involve the Japanese equivalent of an Ivy League school, and even moreso if Keitaro himself wasn’t intellectually suited for, say, a for-profit school, or a community college at the very best. Nevertheless, he tries and fails, and when he refuses to set his sights any lower than the top, his parents realize with what I can only assume was dawning horror that they’re going to be taking care of their son for the long haul, and instead decide to ship his unemployed ass to the family hotel, Hinata Inn, to study while work as the building’s new manager! What they don’t tell him, however, is that Hinata Inn has recently been transformed into a girls’ only dorm, and it’s home to a flock of ferocious females who aren’t shy about letting him know where his boundaries lie. With these tough temptresses attempting to murder him over every little misunderstanding, will Keitaro ever be able to chase his dreams, or will he be too distracted by the angry teenagers chasing him?
Love Hina is a bit of a rarity in terms of production history… It was animated by two distinctly different companies, Production IG and Studio Xebec, the differences between them being like night and day. Production IG has a reputation for showing us the best visuals that the current technology of whatever year it’s working in have to offer, and this was no less true in the year 2000. Xebec, on the other hand, is to animation what a child with a plastic steering wheel attached to it’s carseat is to driving… Except with actual control over the car. These two radically different agents mix about as well as oil and water, making it embarrassingly easy to tell who’s behind the visuals at any given time. Now, to be clear, the animation in this show is never what you’d call “good.” It clearly had a lot of budget issues to deal with, which I’ve heard is partially responsible for it’s failure to secure a second season before it got canceled. It’s passable about half the time, with good old IG doing their damnedest to not let the series look as cheap as it was, and for the most part, it kinda worked. They did what they could to limit obvious corner-cutting techniques, animating character movements and framing conversations in such a way that key frames never become too oppressive, and awkward motion isn’t too distracting.
On the other hand, we have Xebec, who did the rest of the series, and to say they didn’t handle the fickle nature of the budget as well as IG did would be a generous freaking understatement. I guess the best example of the kind of job they do would be episode 16, the Monkey King stage play. This episode doesn’t just abuse key frame, it cuts back and forth between the SAME key frames, at one early point shooting it’s main characters way out in the background, with the entire rest of the frame filled with a simple beach landscape, the tiny characters barely moving as it cuts back and forth between this frame and another slightly more interesting one. It’s eventually revealed that the reason these excessive shortcuts were taken was so Xebec could show some action scenes towards the end, which probably would have made it feel justified if it wasn’t for the fact that the action in question isn’t even all that great. It’s not terrible by any means, but even a novice animator knows that it’s not worth letting 90 percent of your anime look like crap just to save your budget for a few mediocre fight scenes.
So yeah, the worst thing you can say about the animation over-all is that it’s inconsistent, but when it’s bad, it’s painfully bad. The same can be said for the artwork, which… Like the animation… Is at best, passable. The backgrounds are serviceable enough, as while they never really feel detailed or immersive, and extras existing in the background never really move or feel lifelike, it’s never so bad that you can’t imagine characters existing and living in them. They’re fine. The characters, however, run into some serious issues here and there. While it’s not a consistent problem, I do recall several instances of characters appearing off-model, frozen in time, or having the incorrect bodily proportions. There was one particularly egregious frame towards the end where Naru’s little sister temporarily went from a normal middle school physique to an inexplicable D-cup, and that’s not even at it’s worse. Motoko, the swordswoman character, had her face altered for this adaptation in a way that makes her look almost frog-like in the early episodes. Thankfully, that’s really the only deviation from the original character designs that I noticed. Anyway, the artwork is largely fine, but any given time, you’re only one rogue pause away from seeing what can only be described as bad fanart.
But you wanna know what’s consistently awesome, unlike the visuals? The music. Love Hina has a fantastic soundtrack, with it’s only real massive downfalls being the fact that you can’t really find all the sample tracks online, and the fact that several more recognizable tunes get recycled ad nauseum throughout the series. Not that the second issue matters, because the music is good, and you’ll welcome opportunities to hear each track multiple times. Unfortunately, the best track only plays once. It’s a solemn piano piece that plays in episode 12 between the opening theme and the title reveal, and it’s a classical track called Gymnopedies by Eric Satie. The rest of the music, which has been equally difficult to match names to, is overflowing with effort and personality, from the frantic upbeat songs to the beautiful insert songs that were all sung by the cast, and especially the more soulful tunes that get used for more sad or romantic moments. Songs dealing with individual characters carry the flavor of said characters, like Motoko’s traditionally eastern sounding themes and Kaolla’s exotic ones.
The opening, Sakura Saku, could almost be considered an ode to the fast forward button, as it just feels… Fast. from the song to the visuals, it’s an incredibly fast paced op where everything seems to be trying to catch up with each other. I get the feeling that this tone matches what Xebec and IG THOUGHT they were going for with this anime, but in reality, it doesn’t really match the tone of either the original manga OR the final product. It’s like, this is the op they commissioned when they though the show they were going to create was going to be slapstick, zany antics and physical comedy all the way through. Having said that, as fast an OP as it may be, it also comes off as a bit lazy, as it recycles visuals from the show… A pet peeve of mine, if you’re wondering… And otherwise introduces the entire cast through framed faceshots, a staple of the harem genre. Honestly, it’s a pretty annoying op that I found myself skipping over and over. The ending theme is better, employing a slower and more groovy song as it slowly pans across a single still image of the main female cast on the floor covered in nothing but loose white sheets, and while it feels completely out of place, it at least pleasant in comparison. Although, yes, I skipped it just as often.
The English dub has actually achieved notoriety over how terrible it is, as I don’t think I’ve seen a single reviewer attempt to recommend it over the sub… But honestly, I don’t think it’s really all that bad. Now once again, it’s not what you’d call good, but several of the performances are at least accurate, and the ones that aren’t are the product of bad casting and direction, although even in those cases I can kind of see what the director was trying to do. To start things off on a relatively positive note, Derek Stephen Prince’s performance is more or less what I hear in my head when I read Keitaro’s dialogue in the manga, and he’s able to stretch what should be a throat destroying role to some pretty diverse places and situations. He’s a good actor, but that doesn’t really make up for how annoying Keitaro’s voice sounds both in my head and in the show. Marginally better, albeit on the same note, is Bridget Hoffman in the role of Shinobu, the shy middle schooler who had much easier role to perform. Her waify Yamato Nadeshiko pitch would be a bit too grating for the original Shinobu, but with the bulk of her character development either removed or straight up replaced, she fits the part nicely.
When I’m having a discussion about bad, mediocre or middle-of-the-road voice actors, I always manage to shock the room by bringing up the prolific Wendee Lee. Yes, she’s had her fair share of outstanding roles, but she’s also been dragged down on too many occasions by poor direction choices that she just couldn’t manage to save. In Love Hina, she plays the energetic Kaolla Su as well as Su’s older sister Amalla in a dual role where she was asked to perform with an Indian accent… Even though the character is not Indian, and the dialogue even goes as far as to blatantly STATE she’s not Indian. Of course, there wasn’t much available in the way of other options, and there really isn’t a known accent attached to her people in the manga, and to her credit, Wendee does pull it off… When playing Amalla. When her range is stretched too far by the combination of acting, using a difficult accent AND playing a hyper character, the end result is just terrible. It’s still better than Barbara Goodson’s inexplicable southern drawl that’s supposed to act as a substitute for the Kansai accent, but ‘better’ is a relative term here, because they’re both virtually unlistenable.
And if you thought my criticism of Wendee Lee was hard to take, wait until you hear Mona Marshall playing Motoko Aoyama. Good God was this an awful casting choice. I’ve criticized her before for having a little boy voice that doesn’t sound remotely male, but that’s not to say the voice sounds like a natural woman, either… And she uses that exact voice to play Motoko, the kendo-obsessed girl and my favorite character from the manga. Every single word that comes out of her mouth sounds like it’s coming from the wrong person, like she’s the sad victim of a rogue ventriloquist. Rounding out the rest of the main cast we have Julie Ann Taylor doing a fine job with Mutsumi, playing her appropriately as a klutzy airhead, and Dorothy Elias-Fahn as Naru. This is one of Fahn’s two biggest credits, alongside Meryl Stryfe from Trigun, and to say the two characters are similar… Shouting, critical nags attached at the hip to doofus heroes… Is a bit of an understatement, but since Naru isn’t as well-rounded or fully realized a character as Meryl was, there’s also the problem that she doesn’t really click with the character as fast. She enters the role as a stuck-up screaming Tsundere, but to be fair, she does settle into the role as best as she can as the series progresses… Possibly even moreso than the character really deserves. It’s a dub that takes some tolerance and getting used to, but yeah, there’s no real reason not to watch it subbed.
Before I start to look more deeply at Love Hina, I should probably start by saying some things about it’s creator, Ken Akamatsu. As one of the founders of the modern harem genre, Akamatsu is a renowned mangaka whose works have been well received both critically and commercially, and his influence can be seen just about everywhere. He has seven unique titles to his name, but since Mao-chan started off as an anime, Kids Game is difficult to find and the less we say about Itsudatte My Santa the better, we’re going to focus on the way his work has evolved over the course of four of his most well known works; AI Love You, Love Hina, Negima, and UQ Holder. The first thing that I’d like to call attention to is that throughout his career, Akamatsu has had a penchant for inventive action scenes, PG-rated fanservice nudity, and deep, complex exploration of characters who seem at first glance to be nothing more than cheap tropes. Well those and all the weirdness, but the weirdness is largely unique to each title. It’s interesting to look at his body of work over the years, how it’s changed from title to title, but the most easily trackable change comes with the theory that he uses his fanservice as a crutch to keep readers interested throughout the story.
AI Love You was basically a rip-off of Ah My Goddess, with High School Keitaro in the lead role and Skuld being swapped out for a little boy. Not gonna lie, it’s pretty bad. The only thing it really has to offer is a generic slice of life story, disturbingly sexist undertones, and a lot of bare bottoms. It’s follow-up, Love Hina, had lot more effort put into it’s plot and story, with Akamatsu’s trademarked fanservice put into a more consistent context and more practical use as other elements and themes were experimented with. When Negima came around, Akamatsu didn’t even want to make a harem, wanting instead to try his hand at the shounen action genre, so he worked around his contract by using a beefed up harem as the roots and origin of such a story. Since the shounen action and magical adventures wound up being the most popular aspect of Negima, he wound up creating his most recent effort UQ Holder, a sequel to Negima and a pure shounen action series whose occasional fanservice feels more like a half-assed obligation than anything the writer’s really invested in. My point is, he’s grown as a writer, in maturity, craft, and many other areas. But Love Hina is still one of his earlier works, so you kinda have to expect an immature world-view going in.
Since Love Hina is the work that made him famous, it is the one most synonymous with his name, and it’s achieved a sort of iconic status in it’s own right, particularly as a gateway manga for a surprising number of otaku from both sides of the ocean. It’s appeal can best be explained by the way it utilizes it’s target audience, teenage boys and those who think like them. It works the best on readers who are lacking in experience with anime, manga and sex, and unless you’ve already spent your youth on it, it’s a surprisingly easy story to grow out of. Young readers are sucked in by the promise of crazy comedy, sexy antics and the bare bottoms of seven radically different female characters… But instead of just milking these impressionable young readers for cash, Love Hina introduces them to extended arcs, complex character writing, and a sense of conflict and themes that comes off as natural and never forced. For example, Keitaro and Naru aren’t just thrown together as the main prospective couple… In a house full of people who are only staying there to run away from something, they’re the only ones who are also running towards something, making them the most compelling members of the cast, and even when they’re battling against the literal force of fate, you still wind up rooting for them. There’s a lot more to this manga than just fanservice and slapstick, and it stays with you years later.
How well does the anime translate these qualities? Well, let me ask you this; after writing more than sixty anime reviews, how many times did I break the review to talk about the manga the series was based on, and why it worked? I did that here because there are tons of reviews that will tell you Love Hina doesn’t work, but I haven’t really come across any that went into detail about why. The manga works because in between every big memorable moment, there are volumes upon volumes of character development and a very specific order to the events which unfold. Because of this, it represents the best of a lot of otherwise regrettable tropes. Shinobu is the best “notice me sempai” girl, Keitaro is the best of the ‘obsessed over a childhood love’ characters, etc. Out of all the changes that the anime made, more of them being completely harmless than you might think, the absolute worst thing it did was rush the story, ignoring all of that glue and focusing solely on those big moments, and showing everything out of order. The characters are there, but the familiarity is gone. There’s no magic left in our bond with them, and with such terrible execution, nothing feels like it’s happening at the right time. This is a devastating problem for a story with so many imperfections that it needed that glue to cover up.
You can argue until the cows come home about Ken Akamatsu’s level of maturity, but he was not a stupid writer. One of the biggest complaints anyone has about the anime is how much abuse Keitaro suffers at the hands of his love interest, which is a complaint that isn’t heard nearly as often from the Manga’s readers, despite it happening about as often. This is where fanservice comes in. In the manga, almost every time Keitaro’s assaulted, it’s accompanied by either a peek at some panties or a flash of some flesh, and due to the static nature of a manga panel, the presumably 14-year-old reader has the option of lingering on the naughtiness, already perfectly framed, and then just glancing over the punch/kick/sword slash. In the anime, almost all fanservice is removed… Hell, girls don’t even enter the hot springs without towels until the halfway point! The abuse is left to it’s own devices, no distraction offered. This is why, among people who’ve only seen the anime, the character of Naru Narusegawa has the unfortunate stigma of being despised by otaku the world over.
I’ll try not to give too many examples of the disastrous changes the anime makes, at least in the interest of avoiding spoilers, but there are some that must be addressed. Keitaro lying about being a Tokyu U student is supposed to be a major plot point, one where he digs himself in deeper with each interaction, but in the anime, it’s swept under the rug soon after being brought up. Replacing the original Shinobu introductory arc with one that involves her parents feels forced and unnatural, especially since the most essential part of Keitaro’s lie was the way it affected her. There’s an incredibly important moment during a beach storyline where Keitaro is screwed by his friends into royally pissing off Naru, and it’s supposed to be a major speed bump between them that lasts three whole arcs, one of them being completely non-sensical for the sake of levity. Here, that levity arc is played first, and the initial friction arc is combined with another arc(that’s been shifted to three other characters) before being abruptly resolved under some generic fireworks. There are several new characters added, including a new romantic rival for Keitaro, Motoko’s harem of admirers, and Naru’s little sister, but none of them add anything to the story outside of writers’ conveniences.
Several new ideas, like Naru becoming an idol singer and Motoko dreaming she’s in a fantasy RPG game, are just as pointless, and often confusing in their logic. Even when the anime does something genuinely good, it’s still dragged down by mistakes that are even worse. There’s a tight focus on the mystery of who Keitaro’s promise girl is, and the love triangle that blossoms from it is handled well, unless you’re watching the episode where it’s suggested that she might have just been a haunted ball joint doll. The effect Motoko’s sister had on her life is explored thoughtfully, but we never actually meet her, so it ultimately falls flat. Kaitaro’s incest crazy sister was thankfully left out, which I’d give them major credit for if it wasn’t for the fact that A: She wound up getting her own movie and B: They wound up giving Kaolla and her siblings an incest episode that was even worse. The story wound up being incomplete because of budget issues that made it unfeasible to continue onto a second season, but if the right material had been cut, it wouldn’t have been an issue. The three movies that followed didn’t do the ending justice, rather they just animated some popular storylines that were left out. Seeing how ‘Read the manga’ type endings have affected me in the past, you can guess what my thoughts on this one are.
Love Hina was originally available from Geneon, and after they went out of business, it wound up being rescued and redistributed by Funimation. The original Geneon collections are still available online, such as the Complete collection set and the Perfect collection set, which includes the OVA episode and all three movies, or you can buy the two collections that Funimation has released… A thinpack box set with cover art that tried to make the material sexier than it actually is, and more recently an ‘Anime Classics’ collection that proves just how far they’re willing to stretch that term. The three movies can be found individually or in a box set, and while they’re technically out of print, they’re still fairly cheap online. The manga from Ken Akamatsu has been available stateside for so long that you can find the entire 14 volume set on Ebay for as low as 35 dollars, which is a deal I’d highly recommend. AI Love You is a bit trickier to find, and is thus a bit more expensive, even at only 8 volumes. A two volume light novel collection is also available stateside.
The word I feel best describes the Love Hina anime is incompetent. It does absolutely nothing right, and while it’s fairly easy to tell that it respects the source material, it’s just as obvious that it doesn’t understand the source material. The only episode that I found any enjoyment in was episode 12, which had me laughing out loud multiple times and sucked me into it’s story, with a little help from the aforementioned music. Aside from that one exception, every single episode of this turkey is tied for worst, and they all fail in such unique ways that I could have reviewed every single one of them on it’s own, had I wanted to. The comedy isn’t funny, the romance isn’t romantic, the drama has no stakes, the characters have no development, and I have the strangest feeling that they intentionally meandered throughout the entire run, thinking it was entitled to a second season that never happened, and were thus in no rush to reach any conclusion. I was willing for the longest time to give this title a few pity points, based on it’s good intentions, appropriately goofy nature and killer soundtrack, but that incest episode just sealed the deal. I give Love Hina a 1/10.